During the long, hot summer of 2018 I worked in Hounslow, West London, which meant that I had the opportunity to travel into Central London each week to visit the sites or the many visitor attractions that take place in the evening such as Beating the Retreat.
One of the places I visited was St Paul’s church, Covent Garden. Located in Bedford Street, it was designed by Inigo Jones as part of a commission for the 4th Earl of Bedford in 1631 to create "houses and buildings fit for the habitations of Gentlemen and men of ability". (Sorry ladies!)
As well as being the parish church of Covent Garden, the church has gained the nickname of "the actors' church" because of its long association with the theatre community. Buried around the church are may famous people including Thomas Arne, the composer of Rule Britannia and the interred ashes of Dame Edith Evans. Whilst inside the church there are wooden memorials to many famous actors, actresses, playwrites and producers.
On a warm June evening, it was the small lectern that stood at the entrance to the church that captured my attention. On it were these words:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing”, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters.
We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like “organised religion”.
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids or got lost in Covent Garden and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourist, seekers, doubters … and you.
In the Wesley’s conversion hymn, Charles Wesley reminds us of the universality of the gospel when he writes:
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots, and publicans and thieves!
He spreads his arms to embrace you all
Sinners alone his grace receives.
No need of him the righteous have:
He came the lost to seek and save.
We have a similar welcome statement in our church, which reminds us that we extend that welcome of Christ not just to those like us, not to a chosen few, but to all, because, as the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth,
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians, 5, verses 14-15, ESV)
Listen to “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be”.
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.